December Issue: Jim Lee is Master of the DC Universe

Renowned comic book artist Jim Lee channels his dual identities as an illustrator and publisher.

by Jimmy Lee
photographs by Mark Edward Harris

New York City. October 2010.

Within the mundane conference rooms of these halls were assembled superb beings in the world of comic book creation—names like Brian Azzarello, Jeph Loeb and Grant Morrison. At the forefront of this league of extraordinary talents were Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, the two men anointed co-publishers of DC Entertainment earlier in the year. This dynamic duo had brought these figures together to combat the forces diminishing their industry: the Internet, digital piracy and slumping sales. What they would end up proposing at this conference would have universe-shattering consequences.

There is no argument that Jim Lee is one of the most revered comic book artists of the last 25 years. The hour-long lines he generates at comic book conventions are testaments to his artwork’s magnetic hold on fans, while the 2010- published tome, Icons: The DC Comics & WildStorm Art of Jim Lee, is a beautifully packaged ode to Lee’s penciling skills, all in coffee table book-sized glory. He has the distinction of illustrating the best-selling single issue of all time—X-Men No. 1, published by Marvel in 1991.

But in addition to being one of the industry’s premier creative talents, Lee took the plunge last year to be one of its top business executives. Along with Dan DiDio, a comics writer and editor, Lee became head of one of the world’s top two publishing houses, DC—home to Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman—when he was named co-publisher on February 18, 2010.

“In that change there was an opportunity for me to be more involved on a higher level, because they were expanding the Burbank operations of DC Entertainment,” said Lee, from his office in the recently opened DC Entertainment space in Burbank, Calif., which is also home to DC’s parent company, Warner Bros. “If none of that happened, I would not be in this position. So there’s a lot of being in the right place at the right time, but it’s not something I worked toward, or certainly could not have anticipated.”

Managing the business side of a comics operation is a role for which Lee was well-prepared. He and other comic superstars infamously bolted from Marvel—the other party in comics’ duoply, and home to characters like Spider-Man, Iron Man and the X- Men—in 1992 to form Image Comics, allowing them to control and own their creative output. “We all took a dive into the deep end of the business pool—to learn how to run a company, hire people, negotiate contracts, deal with P&Ls (profit and loss statements), filing the proper paperwork with the IRS, things like that,” said Lee, on Image’s founding. Within the new publishing house, the founders each started his own studio imprint, and Lee’ s would be WildStorm. Lee would eventually sell WildStorm to DC in 1999, but he would continue to operate it independently out of its headquarters in La Jolla, a San Diego, Calif., suburb until moving it into the new Burbank office this year.

“If there’s ever been the word superstar used in conjunction with comic books, I mean Jim is the personification of that,” said DiDio, DC’s other co-publisher. “But not only is he really talented as a penciler, he’s also an incredibly astute businessman—with regards to what he was able to do with WildStorm, how he positioned the company and ultimately moved it into DC Comics, and to also have his incredible insights into trends, storytelling and just about every aspect of the business.”

But being leaders of a business means making the company more profitable. And DiDio and Lee, who had replaced longtime publisher Paul Levitz, have taken control at a time when that prospect is more daunting. Just like with content creators in music, movies, magazines and newspapers, the Internet and digitization has roiled the comic book industry.

The production of a mainstream American comic book is a layered process, requiring a high degree of collaboration between multiple individuals. First, a writer prepares the script, which goes to the penciler, who must bring those words to life through panels and sequential images. Those drawings then go to an inker, who has the task of tracing over the lines with ink, giving the illustrations definition not possible with merely pencil. From there the artwork goes to the colorist, who fills in the spaces with all manner of hues. A letterer will at some point add the word balloons and text that will flesh out the 25-page story, all completed in a tight monthly schedule.

So maybe it’s a natural instinct to turn toward your peers when hopes appear dim. It’s one tactic DiDio and Lee chose, convening a writers’ conference in October 2010. Picture some of the industry’s finest content creators holed up in a Time Life corporate retreat center for two days.

“It was almost like a college class, where [DiDio] was asking questions of the writers, and then they would chime in,” described Lee. “We started talking about what’s the tone of the DC Universe, what are the things that hinder it creatively, what are the things that we don’t want part of the DC Universe. So we had this very open dialogue about what we do,” said Lee. “We started very generally, but then as we got into it, we started talking about different characters, different titles, started talking about art and storytelling. A lot of cool things came out of that meeting, one of which was the idea to relaunch the entire universe in a year’ s time, and make some pretty major creative changes in a lot of the key iconic characters.”


That outcome is now called the New 52, DC’s bold endeavor to restart its entire line of comics. With every title commencing once again with issue No. 1, the DC Universe, which had been bogged down with multiple and overlapping universes and timeline crises, is at a new day one. Expect Kal-El’s journey from Krypton to Earth, or Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman, to be rendered again for new, and old, generations of readers. For Wonder Woman this time around, there’s been a tweak to her origin— she’s got a father now. The New 52 launched with the release of Justice League No. 1 in September.

Of course, such a radical redesign will not be met well by some, and comic book fans have no problems voicing their displeasures with the minutest detail. Some feared the New 52 was an attempt by corporate parent Warner Bros. to turn the comics end of the company into a mill to churn out more profitable movie franchises and television series.

“I can see why some people would kind of jump to that conclusion. It’s an erroneous one,” said Lee. “This all started as a publishing initiative. It literally was the editors and publishers sitting down with the writers, and it all came from a creative space and a creative desire.”

When Lee unveiled a new wardrobe for Wonder Woman in 2010, before the New 52, that even drew critical responses from feminist Gloria Steinem and fashion guru Tim Gunn. “Oh, that was kind of a warm-up battle for what we did this year,” remembered Lee. “Ultimately, at the end of the day, it was interesting. We made those changes to Wonder Woman a year ago, and then we made changes again this year. Then there were fans going, ‘I like the old changes,’ meaning of just a year ago. That’s the thing that kind of gives you some confidence going forward, that while the fans might be vocal and oftentimes opposed to initial change, a lot of them very quickly get behind new ideas once they have a chance to sit down and digest what you’re doing.”

For the comic book writers and artists, the idea of the New 52 appealed to their creative instincts. “[With fans], it’s about what I like and don’t like. And if it’s not broken, it doesn’t need fixing,” said Lee. “But I think for a creator, even taking something that might be working and trying to improve upon it; that’s kind of our bread and butter. I don’t think there’s a creator who says, ‘I can’t do a better job.’”

As part of the New 52, Lee is illustrating the relaunched Justice League, with acclaimed scribe Geoff Johns doing the writing. In the DC Universe, this is the title used to team up different superheroes into a single book. But at the start of this new iteration, Superman and Batman aren’t even considered heroes, and they don’t even like each other. “They are known as super beings, super-power beings or super humans.

This is where the characters go from being feared … to characters that are embraced by the majority of society,” said Lee. “When the characters band together and say we’re going to be the defenders of Earth, that’s a big, bold step to take. In a sense, we live in a kind of cynical world, and if you had superpowers, is that what you would do—put your life on the line to protect others? What we’re clearly saying is, yes. So I think that’s an important storyline.”

Eventually, expect Wonder Woman, the Green Lantern, the Flash and Aquaman to join their ranks. “[The Justice League] hasn’t been this group of iconic characters in some time. We like the idea of handling the iconic characters and having a lot of change come from within this book.” Plus, there will be new superheroes, even an Asian American, coming in the future.

But with Lee’s illustration work, a recurring question has been: Can he get his drawings done on time? Problems in the past getting issues out as scheduled have earned Lee a reputation. One of the reasons he sold WildStorm to DC was to lessen his business responsibilities so he could spend more time on the creative side. The fact that Lee is overseeing the editorial, the marketing and the public relations, all the while illustrating the flagship title of the New 52 might make some editors and publishers a little uneasy.

“Jim knows how to separate his position,” said DiDio. “It’s really two separate things. I could have a long-term conversation with him with regards to publishing strategies on one side, and the next day tell him you need to turn in two pages, or else the book is running late. And he would understand the priority there, and how he had to juggle his own schedule to make it work.”

Being both publisher and creator can wreak havoc on a schedule. “During the week I can get by on fairly little sleep. I’ll draw from like 10 to 3 or 4 in the morning. And then kind of relax and recover during the weekend.” And while work is based in the L.A. suburb of Burbank, his home is still in the San Diego area. Lee commutes two-and-a-half-hours by train from San Diego Tuesday morning, and stays in Los Angeles until Thursday, taking the train back to San Diego after work. Plus, Lee is recently remarried, with a baby due in December.

A man of Lee’s level of success might not want to deal with the deadlines and the minimal sleep. At 47 years old, he’s set financially, and there are very few Korean parents in the U.S. who have more bragging rights than Lee’s parents in terms of their children’s pedigree. In fact, Lee has relocated most of his family from St. Louis, Mo., which was where his family immigrated to when he was a 4-year-old.

“When I sold [WildStorm] to DC, my line of thinking was, I already had security from the work I was publishing,” said Lee. “But by selling the company, I basically secured [my family’s] future, and my then-wife’s mother’s future, in terms of buying a house. So everyone was five minutes from where we lived. And they continue to live that close to us. Some people say, how can you give up these characters that you created? Well, I’m trading them to make my loved ones’ lives better. So, to me, it’s an easy trade-off, an easy sacrifice.”

Lee’s impact has stood the test of time. At last July’s Comic-Con in San Diego, Ryan Hensman waited nearly an hour to have Lee sign a few posters, as well as old copies of X-Men. “I grew up with Jim Lee,” said the 33-year-old. “When I started collecting comic books, he was one of the biggest artists. It’s just that nostalgia [getting his autograph today].”

At his convention appearances, and at his office, he seems to have an updated look. Gone seem to be the T-shirts, shorts and baseball caps he often wore in public, replaced by form-fitting shirts and modern jeans. Another thing about Jim Lee in his new office: “I’m trying to keep this pristine and austere as possible because my office at home looks like a bomb went off,” with comic books and artwork all over the floor, he said. “This [office] is my Clark Kent, and I go home and hopefully [draw like] Superman on the pages. Yeah, it sounds stupid,” Lee said, laughing.

This theme of duality is found repeating so often in his life that maybe it was inevitable Lee might become like one of his super-powered beings, who are often divided between their dual identities—the secret and the public. He’s channeling his heroics into making the New 52 a success.

“What keeps me going is that I signed on for this mission voluntarily, and I know if I screw this up, it’s not going to be good for me or the company,” said Lee. “There’s a lot riding on it. You find new levels within yourself.”

This article was published in the December 2011 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today!